With more than 1,600 stores across the globe, how does the Spanish retailer maintain consistency while remaining relevant to local shoppers? We went to La Coruña to find out.
Head office Arteixo, La Coruña, Spain
Total Zara stores 1,631
Trades in 82 countries
First store opened 1975
If you were setting up shop, what would you do? Source the stock, find appropriate premises and then let people know you exist. This would be a pretty standard model and is a route that’s been followed by the great majority of those seeking a foothold in retail’s foothills.
Imagine, however, completing the first two elements of this formula and then not bothering with the third part. This would be anathema at any business school and at first glance it might seem the most direct route to the receiver’s office. Yet one of the world’s largest retailers, a byword for efficiency and speed, did exactly that from the outset and four decades later continues to pursue the same approach.
The retailer is Zara and its parent, Inditex, has always steered clear of paid-for advertising. It does advertise, but not on the terms in which most people understand advertising.
In Zara’s case, every store is an advert, or “communication tool” as Jesus Echevarria, chief communication officer at Inditex, puts it.
This, of course, should be the case for any retailer as most shops operate by having windows that work on the principle of attracting passing shoppers. If, however, the store is the only means used to tell a waiting world about an offer, then windows assume an even greater importance than in other shops, which will probably have images of their products and brand plastered across screens, newspapers and social networks.
“For us, the store is the heart of everything,” says Echevarria, and a visit to Inditex HQ just outside the city of La Coruña in the northwestern Spanish province of Galicia, goes a long way towards bearing out this axiom.
From a practical perspective, this means appearance is everything. Or put another way: visual merchandising. This, of course, is VM in its broadest sense – a world where everything from the shape and form of the building to the manner of displaying the garments is made to act as shopper flypaper.
Echevarria breaks the visual components down into four elements: architecture, store location, windows and product co-ordination – for which read old-style product layout, colour blocking and merchandise storytelling.
While all of these are important for any retailer, for Zara stores (and the retailer has stores in 82 ‘territories’ or 80 countries) they are the root from which everything else stems.
And in spite of being counter to accepted wisdom, the strategy of maintaining a low media profile, refusing interviews and ducking personality pieces has served Zara well.
However, it is worth bearing in mind Echevarria’s comment that this is “not necessarily the right way or the only way.
It’s just a way of working”.
01 - Store architecture and location
“It’s not by chance that the stores are where they are,” says Echevarria. “They are always in prime locations.” From a purely practical perspective, this translates as stores that average around the 16,145 sq ft mark and have high visibility. This can mean anything from a restored monastery, such as the landmark Salamanca branch, to an in-mall shop of the kind found in locations such as Croydon’s Whitgift Centre or the idiosyncratic store fascia of the branch at Westfield London. Echevarria comments that not all of the store designs are immediately popular: “We encourage people to do things and to make a few mistakes.”
What the many stores have in common are a fairly standardised series of windows contained within widely varying envelopes.
That Zara is able to operate in some of the world’s most expensive retail locations and to improve upon what’s already there is testimony to an unrelenting capital expenditure programme that will see Inditex part with more than £450m on stores, new and old, in 2012.
02 - Windows
It matters little whether you visit Munich, Mexico City or Manchester: the point about Zara is that it seems to have pulled off that tricky feat of creating windows that appear the same, irrespective of location. Mild sleight of hand is involved, however. Echevarria says that while window schemes are created in the head office’s mock shop and materials and “suggestions” on installations are sent from there to ensure there is a recognisably Zara look, variation does take place.
This means that, while the window schemes and backdrops are the same throughout, the choice of garments is at the discretion of the local VM team.
The garments worn by the mannequins in the stores are changed every two weeks.
“Our suggestion [for what the mannequins should wear] is about a current trend that is transmitted globally, but each store is going to be shaped by the customer.”
The window schemes themselves are changed every six months, which doesn’t sound a lot but when the sheer scale of the operation is taken into consideration, this is something of a logistical triumph, as is the matter of having globally consistent standards.
03 - In-store product display
“Our stores are not warehouses. They are places where things need to be co-ordinated. It’s a drawing in which they are painting the stores with colour,” says Echevarria. That this happens is the outcome of central merchandising teams which take photos and send them across the world to ensure the Zara experience is more or less the same. In essence, these boil down to detailed planograms and when you see a particular colour scheme, it is the result of some careful thinking in the Arteixo head office. Echevarria says “it’s the customer’s era” insofar as the internet has created a pull rather than push business environment.
This means that “transparency” is the order of the day in everything a retailer does. “You must be perfect. You must be excellent and you need to be honest,” says Echevarria.
04 - The mock shop
While everything, according to Inditex’s communications supremo, springs from the store, a huge amount of it comes from a specific store in which nothing is ever sold. Welcome to the pilot shop, deep in the bowels of head office.
Most large retailers have something of the kind, but what marks the Zara mock shop out from others is the scale. This is a full-size 12,916 sq ft store with different rooms for womenswear, menswear and kidswear. For the few non-Zara personnel who get to walk around this space, the experience is uncannily familiar – this is just like being in a high street Zara branch.
The shop is changed and remerchandised every week and there are different teams that work on each department, pulling together merchandise stories on the basis of colours and trends. This is where things get tried out – there’s even a huge separate room where the window schemes that will be installed next season are already having the finishing touches put to them.
And this is where the merchandising photos are taken, prior to them being emailed around the organisation. If you want to understand how Zara stores get to look the way they do, the answer lies here.
05 - The internet
Away from the mock shop and close to the areas where teams of designers create new collections, there is the internet space. Web selling is a relatively new venture for Zara (it’s been up and running since 2009) and the way the retailer presents its wares is the work of manager Javier Garcia Torralbo. A series of white infinity curve spaces ensure the focus is on the models wearing the garments due to be sold online shortly (the astonishingly short lead times for production of a new style have always been a Zara feature). Photography in these areas takes place almost non-stop – and this is treated as a department in its own right, quite distinct from the way in which the stock in the mock shop is handled.
06 - Conclusion - Slick and stylish, discreet and defined
If you had to characterise what takes place in Arteixo and how it influences what happens in the field, it would be only a small exaggeration to say nothing is left to chance. This is a completely evolved retail system that takes little notice of what the competition is doing and is happy to plough its own furrow as far as visual merchandising and the way it sells is concerned. If you want to choose a way of doing retail business, the Zara model may not be the most obvious route to follow, but it works well, in a quiet and efficient way.